State budget crisis clouds manufacturing education at community colleges

Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machine operator Blake Veeneman makes a process inspection after a casting is machined at Port City Group’s Port City Castings Corporation manufactures high-pressure aluminum die-castings, mostly for the automotive industry, in Muskegon, MI, facility on Wednesday July 20, 2011. Port City Group boosted its employment by 12 percent over last year thanks to two Rural Business Guaranteed Loans totaling $9.6 million. In its 80,000 sq. ft. facility, machines that range from 800 – 1,600 tons, and cast A380 aluminum alloy products from melted ingots of aluminum, into automotive components of U.S.A. made vehicles. The process features a variety of robotic presses; computer controlled machining; quality control facility; and complete measurement and testing laboratory. In 2009 banks were backing out of loans for PCG equipment purchase agreements. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) loan guarantee helped make the loan possible with its guarantee. PCG obtained the needed robotic and other equipment. This resulted in a stable workforce that has since grown. When asked about their USDA experience, Port City Group Sales Manager Laura LaGuire said, “It was great! They were very helpful. Everything that came up was handled smoothly, the money came in place when it was needed, and it was a very smooth transition.” USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

By Harvard Zhang

The state’s financial crisis is undermining community college efforts to equip Illinoisans, particularly from low-income families, with high-tech manufacturing skills at a time when manufacturing jobs are again on the rise after a decade-long decline.

Manufacturing departments at some community colleges shortchanged by the budget-less state of Illinois have been tightening their belts by scaling back equipment procurement for education purposes or offering fewer openings to educate future highly-skilled workers sought after by employers facing a talent shortfall.

“Community college graduates is a major contributor to a higher-skilled workforce in the industry,” said Jim Nelson, vice president of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, which represents 4,000 companies and plants in the state. “I can virtually guarantee that anybody that goes through a community college training program and earns the industry credentials can go to work immediately.”

The gloomy outlook for manufacturing education at Illinois community colleges due to a paucity of state dollars comes as U.S. manufacturing has been on the mend since 2010 with a craving for tech-savvy technicians and engineers to grab the growing on-shoring jobs and fill increasing vacancies left by baby-boomer retirees.

Talent shortage

A skills gap would leave 2 million manufacturing jobs unfilled over the next decade, three-fifths of the job opportunities in the industry contributing more than $2 trillion to the U.S. economy annually, according to a 2015 report by the Manufacturing Institute, an affiliate of Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group National Association of Manufacturers. The talent gap, the report said, flows from a lack of STEM skills, inadequate technical education, and a younger generation’s negative image of manufacturing work.

Yet, the average manufacturing worker earned $79,553 in 2014 including pay and benefits, more than 20 percent more than the average for all industries, according to the Manufacturing Institute.

The talent shortage comes as U.S. manufacturing jobs, which dropped by 5.7 million in a decade-long slump starting in 2000, now have bounced back for five consecutive years, gaining a total of 790,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Last year President Obama proposed a 10-year, $60-billion plan of free two-year community-college education to help students earn skills needed in the workforce. The plan required participating states to take up 25 percent of the bill. Separately, Illinois community college students and manufacturers benefited from a $3.9 million federal grant to facilitate students’ transitions into apprenticeship and employment.

A lack of successors to retiring owners of small manufacturers, the retirement of baby-boomer workers and a cyclical economic downturn of various industries have reshaped the 12-million-persons manufacturing industries, according to Nelson of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association. He added that Illinois manufacturers are replacing 30,000 retired workers and engineers every year.

“Manufacturing in Illinois is strong, and all of our sectors are doing well,” Nelson said. “We’re at a trough in the business cycle, but it’ll get a new peak.”

Education setback

Triton College in River Grove had to scale back plans for a welding lab, shifting those funds to fill the void of Monetary Award Program grants by the state to low-income students.

Triton last received MAP grants, totaling $1.4 million,  in the spring of last year, an average of $933 for each of 1500 eligible students. Another $632,000 of MAP funds is expected from a special appropriation passed by the legislature in April, a bill signed by Governor Rauner. But the community college is uncertain about the reimbursement for spring 2016 claims, Triton’s Public Relations Coordinator Stephen Butera said.

Despite the pinch, Triton College, 15 miles northwest of downtown Chicago, is training 120 students to be qualified for a variety of manufacturing jobs from the production line to the engineering department, according to Antigone Sharris, Triton’s engineering technology department coordinator. This includes operating Computer Numerical Control systems, which requires command of geometry, physics and programming.

Sharris said it takes $7,000 to pay for Triton’s two-year manufacturing degree program, while the average annual family income in the Triton district is only $40,000, more than 25 percent less than the median 2014 U.S. household income of $53,657 reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, graduates fresh out of Triton’s manufacturing programs make about $45,000 a year, Sharris said.

Illinois Central College in East Peoria, another community college that offers manufacturing training, has had to reduce the number of class sections it offers and to monitor classes’ fill rates to gird for a second year without state financial aid, according to Valerie Welsh, the school’s chief public relations officer.

Illinois’s budget woes

The state’s budget catastrophe has taken a toll on state universities as well as community colleges, especially hurtful to low-income students depending on MAP grants to finish their education. Springfield lawmakers failed to pass a stopgap spending plan for K-12 or higher education when the spring legislative session wrapped up on May 31, let alone a full budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Republican Governor Bruce Rauner is poised to veto a $227 million MAP grant bill for the past 2015-16 school year sponsored by Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan that cleared both  houses earlier this spring. Unlike the MAP funding of $170 million within a stopgap $600 million appropriation for higher education approved by the governor in April, the latest MAP grant plan doesn’t contain a funding source, an omission that has prompted the governor to veto other spending bills.

Granted, some Illinois community colleges offering manufacturing education and their current or prospective students are affected less by a lack of MAP funding than others. College of DuPage has been covering its manufacturing program and MAP grants for students its reserve funds despite receiving only one-fourth of the state financial aid it was supposed to get this year, according to Jim Filipek, DuPage’s manufacturing technology program coordinator.


Photo at top: A Computer Numerical Control machine operator inspects a casting. Illinois’s budget crisis has dimmed the outlook for manufacturing education at some community colleges. (Lance Cheung for U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr)